China's soccer ambition grows with Guangzhou's Lippi coup

    Story highlights

    • Italy's World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi is the new coach of Guangzhou Evergrande
    • Lippi has won five Italian titles and the European Champions League with Juventus
    • Former Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka joined Shanghai Shenhua in January
    • The former France international is now Shanghai's player-coach
    The Chinese Super League has seen its global profile skyrocket over the last 12 months with the arrival of several high-profile football stars in big-money deals.
    The trend continued on Thursday with the announcement that Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi will take over the reigns at ambitious Guangzhou Evergrande on a two-and-a-half-year contract.
    "I dispatched an assistant to go see the club's matches, which made me even more determined," the 64-year-old told a press conference which was broadcast live on Chinese state television. "I am very enthusiastic about coming to China."
    Lippi has an impressive managerial record, having coached Juventus to five Italian Serie A titles and the European Champions League in 1996.
    Guangzhou, China's reigning champions, started the spending spree last year by signing Argentine playmaker Dario Conca from Brazilian side Fluminense for a national record transfer fee.
    Conca has since been joined in China by former France striker Nicolas Anelka, who, after a prolific career across Europe, swapped Chelsea for Shanghai Shenhua in January.
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    Paraguay's Lucas Barrios will become the latest recruit when he signs for Guangzhou from German champions Borussia Dortmund on June 1, for a fee which eclipses the one paid for Conca.
    So what is attracting such stellar names to a country which has a limited football heritage?
    "There are things happening in Chinese football but there is still a long way to go," Asian football expert John Duerden told CNN.
    "I can't imagine that Lippi has been always been desperate to work in the Chinese Super League, though China is a fascinating place and some of the cities are fantastic."
    Previous coach Lee-Jang soo had achieved on-field success with Guangzhou, leading the club out of the second tier, to the 2011 Super League title and into the Asian Champions League.
    But Duerden said Lee's profile was not big enough for a club with grand ambitions.
    "It's all about the name," he said. "While Lee is well-liked in China and east Asia, outside the region he has little standing. Hiring Lippi sends the message that Guangzhou want to be Asia's first superclub."
    Duerden said the surge in football spending in China has been financed by powerful political figures, but that it may be detrimental to the future of the sport in the country.
    "The spark is all down to politics, power and connections. The next generation of China's leaders, including the next president are fans of football, and it is a great way for business leaders to get close to the decision-makers.
    "There is a huge disconnect between what the game actually needs and what it is getting. There are less than 10,000 registered under-12 players in China (Japan, with a tenth of the population has over 300,000) and you have to wonder what a similar amount of money would do if invested in the grassroots."
    Since arriving in Shanghai, Anelka has seen his role at Shenhua change. Last month, the 33-year-old was added to former Fulham manager Jean Tigana's coaching staff.
    Tigana then resigned from his position, paving the way for Anelka to assume a surprise player-coach role.
    "The situation is fairly chaotic at Shanghai and the team is pretty mediocre," said Duerden. "Big money was spent on new strikers but what the team really needs is midfielders.
    "He (Anelka) does seem committed and is starting to talk to the press a little more. He also has the respect of the players, for obvious reasons, and he seems to be taking the coaching role quite seriously."
    Meanwhile, Manchester United announced on Thursday that striker Michael Owen has left the English club following the expiration of his contract.
    The former Liverpool and Real Madrid star has been ravaged by injury during his three years at Old Trafford, scoring just five goals in 31 Premier League appearances.